The White Sox did the almost unthinkable Thursday.
They brought 76-year-old Tony La Russa back to the organization, 41 years after hiring him to be their manager the first time and 34 years after firing him.
Righting a wrong that has bothered him since La Russa was canned by general manager Ken Harrelson in 1986, 84-year-old chairman Jerry Reinsdorf handed the managerial reins to La Russa to guide a young and talented team poised for a run of multiple championships — or so general manager Rick Hahn has envisioned since he began a full rebuild four years ago.
The makeover has heightened expec-tations and generated fan enthusiasm not seen since the Sox’ World Series title season in 2005. But the hiring of La Russa — his Hall of Fame career and three World Series titles notwithstanding — was met with resistance and outcry from fans expecting a younger, trendier pick such as 46-year-old AJ Hinch. La Russa, who signed a multiyear deal, wasn’t the person everyone expected to take over after Rick Renteria was fired, but he was the first one Reinsdorf called.
All La Russa has to do is prove to fans he can still manage a 2020s game rooted in analytics and data and handle a 2020s clubhouse full of young, fun-loving players.
“There’s been some concern that I’ve been away from baseball,” La Russa said Thursday.
But apparently not enough concern from Reinsdorf, his good friend, and Hahn and vice president Ken Williams.
“I was surprised when I first got the call,” La Russa said.
After a second call, La Russa — who has spent parts of the last nine seasons in front- office roles with the Diamondbacks, Red Sox and Angels — decided he’d had enough of wearing a suit and that it was time to let his still highly competitive juices go to work on the field.
“Watching the game closely from upstairs, I described it to my friends as torture because you’re seeing it and you can’t do anything about it,” La Russa said. “Soon thereafter, I realized I had to either stop complaining about being upstairs or go downstairs. And if you go downstairs and have an opportunity like you have with the White Sox, that’s when it got serious.”
Reinsdorf attempted to set the record straight in a statement Thursday:
“As everyone in baseball is well aware, I have always respected Tony and am proud to have maintained a great friendship with him over the decades in the game,” he said. “But his hiring is not based on friendship or on what happened years ago, but on the fact that we have the opportunity to have one of the greatest managers in the game’s history in our dugout at a time when we believe our team is poised for great accomplishments.”
There’s no understating La Russa’s accom-plishments. He’s known as one of the game’s best baseball minds, with a career that saw him become the third-winningest manager in history, a four-time manager of the year and a winner of 12 division titles and six pennants with the Sox, Athletics and Cardinals. He won World Series titles with the A’s in 1989 and the Cardinals in 2006 and 2011, his last year managing.
The game has changed much since then, as has sensitivity to and awareness of social issues. One of the first questions asked of La Russa on Thursday was about his stated objections in 2016 to then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest during the national anthem. Five Sox players kneeled on Opening Day this season. La Russa said he would be supportive of players using their platform for protest.
“A lot has gone on in a very healthy way since 2016, and not only do I respect but I applaud the awareness that has come into not just society but especially in sports,” La Russa said.
As for bat flipping, which has taken on a new life of its own since he last managed, La Russa was supportive of Sox shortstop and bat-flip energizer Tim Anderson.
“I always reasoned if it was sincere, I didn’t have a problem with players being more exuberant,” La Russa said. “Take Tim Anderson as an example. Now it’s people showing, ‘Hey, I’m coming through.’ In fact, Major League Baseball is encouraging them to [be exuberant]. If I see it’s sincere and it’s directed toward the game, that’s displaying the kind of emotion you want.”
La Russa said Anderson, who won a batting title in 2019 and was in MVP consideration in 2020, is “exactly the kind of player you want.”
The Sox have more where Anderson came from, which is why La Russa will put on a uniform again in 2021.
“All managers would understand how rare it is to get a chance to manage a team that’s this talented and this close to winning,” he said.